The boisterous vibrancy of U.S. culture has historically stemmed from the mingling of homegrown art with imported models of European classicism. Some of the credit for this unique American cultural heritage belongs to the robber barons and entrepreneurs--Frick, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller and so forth--who used part of their fortunes to build museums, libraries and concert halls that would rival any to be found on the Continent. In their diverse ways, these benefactors believed culture served the common good, not only educating the people but also making them better citizens. Such patronage helped ensure that our cultural plate would overflow with options,...

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